It’s something of a universal experience among trans people: changing your name. Where this is being written the name change process itself is pretty simple, but it’s understood that not every place in the world shares the United Kingdom’s relaxed attitude to names. In my case I did it a few years ago, but finding an unexpected thing still in my old name has brought me back in to the process for a moment.
Once you have changed your name, of course that’s only the start. You then have to change it with a whole host of organisations, from the tax office through your driving licence, passport, pension, insurance, bank, roadside rescue, mobile telephone, and every other white envelope that rests on your doorstep. It’s a tedious process, but it’s one with a few straightforward steps and it should be completed with minimum fuss for each case.
Conversing with a brick wall
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go to plan. Every organisation has its own bureaucracy, and a significant number of them consider themselves to be a legal authority on all aspects of name changes. Thus while usually all you have to do is send in a name change document, more often than not you will face a struggle.
Here’s how it goes, picture a typical telephone conversation:
Call centre person: Hello, this is [organisation], how may I help?
You: Hello, my name’s Jenny List but the name you have on file for me is [old name] and my account number is xxxxxxx, I’d like to change the name on my account due to my gender change.
Call centre person: (thinks: Oh shit! I don’t know what to do! I’ll put them on hold while I ring my manager!) Okay, I’ll just have to put you on hold.
( Interlude of catchy but annoying hold music )
Behind the scenes, middle manager’s brain: Oh shit! I haven’t got a clue what to do here! I know, I’ll just go with whatever is the first silly idea to tumble out of my brain!
( Catchy but annoying hold music ends )
Call centre person: (repeats silly idea for whatever you have to do, presents it as company policy, the law, rules set by the industry regulator, or whatever they make up at the time)
The silly idea can be as ignorant, illogical, discriminatory, or downright illegal as you like, it seems when it comes to us nothing is off limits. I’ve had multiple incidences of ignorance, usually insisting on a deed poll because they haven’t heard of a statutory declaration, for example. Then there are the occasional demands for a gender recognition certificate, and sometimes worse. The bank holding my ISA for instance asked me for a medical report from my gender clinic.
Simply complaining usually leads to a brick wall of “rules are rules”. Sometimes it results in a slightly bad-tempered, rude, or defensive response from the call centre person, and often you can get it escalated to their complaints department. You then have another conversation a day or two after with someone from them, during which they will invariably respond that whatever they cave come up with is Company Policy, and the Company can Never Be Wrong. You can comply, or you can keep seeing your old name on your correspondence.
So what’s to be done?
In some cases where the organisation isn’t that important to you and the infringement is minor, you can just dump them. My mobile phone company refused to accept a statutory declaration as a name change document, for example. No problem, bye-bye to them and hello a better deal in my new name with their competitor.
At the time where an unreasonable demand is made and you can’t just move to another supplier, or it is so heinous that it can’t be left unchallenged, you’ll have to go to greater lengths. It then becomes a matter of veiled threat, evidence gathering, and finally official complaint.
The veiled threat is straightforward. Remember this phrase. “I think you need to consider what you are about to say very carefully indeed before you say something you may later regret“. That one got me results in-branch with the bank that holds my current account, when the young man behind the desk was flat-out refusing to change my name. He went away and rang his diversity department, before coming back and changing my name very quickly indeed. It’s a good approach because it reminds them they’re on dodgy ground without an explicit threat that will put their back up.
If they refuse to budge after a veiled threat, it’s time to start evidence gathering. Ask for everything in writing, because they will usually then give you irrefutable evidence of their transgression. If they quote rules set by a regulator or other official body, ask for the name of the regulator, the name of the set of rules, the clause, and paragraph number. I have never had an organisation furnish these details because of course they don’t exist, and once or twice I’ve had climb-downs when even they had to admit that.
Once you have their final position and whatever evidence is required, it’s time to make an official complaint. Usually this means finding the regulatory body for their industry, for example the Financial Ombusman for a bank. They’ll have a form you can fill in, and all required details will be on their website. When I’ve taken organisations like the bank that asked for a medical report to the ombudsman it’s been a straightforward but slightly slow process. You are assigned a case worker, who puts your complaint to the bank. They then shuffle their feet and produce a recording of your phone conversation, the case worker reviews it and then you usually end up talking to the bank’s diversity department. Usually it’s their gay bank manager promoted into the role, and they are falling over themselves to fix matters. Then you get a judgement from the ombudsman, and are usually awarded a cash settlement. It’s not something to do for the money as the point of getting name change policies right is more important, but I can’t deny it’s nice to have.
If the organisation has asked for a gender recognition certificate, that’s cut and dried. It’s a criminal offence, and you can report it to the police. I have to admit I’ve never taken it that far, because in the cases I was asked that question I carefully explained that they had committed an offence and each time their response was to see sense as I now had them so to speak by the balls. It would be interesting to see how reporting it to the police would proceed, if it were me I wouldn’t trust the desk officer at my local station to take it seriously, and would go straight to my force’s LGBT liaison officer.
Most of my name changes were pretty straightforward, and the chances are yours will be too. Every time one of us takes an organisation to the ombudsman that organisation learns from their mistake, and the next person to come along should have an easier time. The experience described above was a few years ago, but I know from my friends that it can still happen. I learned through several such incidents how to deal with them effectively, and I hope that having read this piece you can now benefit from what I picked up if it happens to you. We do sometimes have to be a PITA, if we want to make the world a better place for those who come behind us.
Bank card header image: jarmoluk [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.